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The African Union: Successes and Failureslocked

  • Thomas Kwasi TiekuThomas Kwasi TiekuDepartment of Political Science, Kings University College


The African Union (AU), an international organization comprising all 54 independent states in Africa and Western Sahara, was established in May 2001 to, among other things, promote regional integration, interstate solidarity, peace, good governance and to enhance the African voice in the global system. Pan-African organization is like the proverbial forest that has bad trees dotted around its many good trees. The AU has been very successful in addressing the needs of the African political class but it is yet to make a significant difference in the lives of many ordinary Africans. The importance of the pan-African organization to African political elite is such that they would have created it today if it did not already exist. The AU has socialized African leaders to accept liberal values as the foundation of international cooperation in Africa; enhanced the agency of African political class on the world stage; and established progressive and innovative rules and norms for the African continent. It has also created many useful decision-making structures that have contributed to the prevention, management, and resolution of conflicts in Africa.

The AU has, however, been less successful in connecting its activities and programs to many ordinary Africans; providing common public goods and services valued by commoners in Africa; giving voice to the majority of young people in Africa; promoting intra-Africa trade, good governance, and financial independence of the African continent as well as struggled to address the expressed material needs and quotidian concerns of ordinary Africans.


The African Union (AU) is the premier international organization on the African continent. The Addis Ababa–based organization brings together 54 independent African countries and Western Sahara to promote continental political unity, security cooperation, and economic integration and to enhance African agency on the world stage (Karbo & Murithi, 2018). Analytically, the AU has been conceptualized as a three-dimensional (3D) or tripartite organization, comprising governments, international bureaucrats, and outisiders (i.e., actors and institutions that are not formal members of the AU but whose ideas and views shape practices, directions, priorities, and policies of the pan-African organization (Mando, 2018). Many of the AU outisiders are nongovernmental actors such as think tanks, academics, independent consultants, transnational civil society groups, and independent commissions. but some governmental agencies, such as the Chinese and American missions in Addis Ababa, as well as international organizations (IOs), including the European Union (EU) and the United Nations (UN), are major drivers of AU decisions, priorities, and policies.

This article explores AU’s successes and failures since it was created on May 26, 2001. It contends that the pan-African organization is like the proverbial forest that has bad trees dotted around its many good trees. It has been extremely helpful to the African political elite to such an extent that it would have been created today if it did not already exist. It has become indispensable to the African political class and even the global political elite. The AU has been relatively effective in addressing the needs of the African political class in many ways. First, the AU contributed to changing the mindset of the majority of the African political class by socializing them to accept liberal values as the foundation for international cooperation in Africa; second, the union enhanced the agency of African governments in the international arena; third, the African premier organization established progressive and liberal rules that, among other things, enhanced elite African women’s access to senior management positions in public office; fourth, the Addis Ababa–based international organization created many useful norms, including one that encouraged peaceful sharing of power by the political class; fifth, the pan-African organization moderated the behavior of African states; and sixth, the AU established decision-making structures that have contributed to the prevention, management, and resolution of conflicts in Africa.

Yet the AU has been less successful in providing services that address many of the expressed needs and concerns of the non-elite in Africa, who constitute the bulk of the population and who need the AU the most. It has been unable to connect its activities and works to the ordinary African or provide common public goods and services valued by commoners in Africa; give voice to the majority of people in Africa, especially those under 35 years old; lead by example; hold some of the bad African leaders accountable for abuse of power; and improve intra-African trade that would have benefited ordinary Africans. In addition, predictably, it has increased Africa’s financial dependence on external donors.

The above claims are advanced in six sections. The second section, which follows this introduction, sets a context for the analysis by placing the AU in social sciences knowledge production. The next section historicizes the AU, showing that the union marks a break from the Pan-Africanism of the 19th and 20th centuries. The fourth section shows the main achievements of the AU since 2001, and the fifth section explores its failures. The conclusion contains a summary of the main arguments and also shows areas where further work is needed.

Scholarship on the African Union

The AU has generated a growing body of literature in the academe, the policy and consultancy fields, as well as in the think tanks and nongovernmental sectors. The growing body of works on the AU is, however, uneven in terms of quality, focus, and also in terms of people and institutions producing the knowledge. Many of the materials available in the public domain are descriptive in nature (mostly describing AU institutions, functions, and activities), focus heavily on AU peace and security architecture, and are written with policymakers rather than academics in mind. Few are grounded in any broader theoretical framework in the field of international organizations or connected to the larger international relations conversations.1

The writings on the AU are predominately policy oriented; they are written for the policy community or by people affiliated with or writing for policymaking institutions. Out of the approximately 5,320,000 AU-related materials stored by Google between May 2001 and March 2018, only around 1,880,000 (35%) are academic in nature. Approximately 3,440,000 (62%) are policy-related materials or journalistic accounts. Most of the policy reports are produced by a few think tanks located in South Africa, Ethiopia, and, to a limited extent, in the West. The two South African–based think tanks, the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) and the African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes (ACCORD), together with the Ethiopia-based Institute for Peace and Security Studies (IPSS), have dominated the production of knowledge on the AU. These think tanks have become both gatekeepers and hegemons in the production and spread of knowledge on the AU.

The domination of knowledge production on the AU by think tanks meant that the materials on the AU mostly describe AU institutions and activities, and make recommendations for policy actions. The contents of most of the materials on the AU are disconnected from international organization scholarship, African studies, and international relations conversations. Since the messages in these materials are directed toward the policy community, they are often very short, written in highly accessible language, and widely available on the Web. But they are written in such a short space of time and with such speed that they usually lack the in-depth analysis and sober reflections associated with good academic work. It is therefore common to encounter factual errors, hasty generalizations, and opportunistic assertions when reading materials on the AU.2

Moreover, many of the AU-related publications are security-centric. They are written by people within the security consultancy system or by academics whose interests are related to security. Of the over 123 academic writings related to the AU compiled by major databases such as the Social Sciences Abstracts, Social Sciences Citation Index, Worldwide Political Science Abstracts, PAIS Index, and Simone, approximately 66% are related to peace and security. Only 44% of them focus on other equally important issues that the AU is mandated to address. Peace and security is just one of many big-ticket items the AU is mandated to focus on. Also, peace and security is one out of twenty-one departments and offices, eight directorates, and thirty-one specialized technical agencies that the AU has.3

A breakdown of the 100 major journal articles published on the AU between 2001 and 2018 is telling. Of the 100 journal articles published during this period, 63% are on AU peace, security, and peacekeeping, 6% on the AU work on the economy, 3% on the AU and conflict, 2% on the AU and science, 2% on the AU and social affairs, 2% on the AU work on governance, and 1% on the AU and globalization. The peace and security–biased nature of knowledge production on the AU has created the impression that the AU is nothing but an international security institution. This has colored people’s assessment of the performance of the AU, creating the impression that the AU has been an abject failure because of the mirage of security challenges on the African continent. The sections entitled “Successes” and “Failures” show that the AU’s works go well beyond peace and security. Before exploring these, however, it is important to provide a brief background of the AU and to place the AU in context for the assessment of successes and failures.

A Brief History of the African Union

The AU is a product as well as a concrete expression of Pan-Africanism, which started in the 19th century.4 Although the continental organization is clearly a manifestation of the spirit of Pan-Africanism as articulated in the 19th century, the AU exhibits a new form of Pan-Africanism. The new spirit of Pan-Africanism, described as the third phase of the movement (Mathews, 2018), new Pan-Africanism (Landsberg, 2012a, 2012b) and the renaissance coalition (Khadiagala, 2012), has at least four distinctive features. First, it is cosmopolitan in orientation unlike the first wave of pan-Africanism, which was race-centric, as Appiah (2017) argued in Foreign Affairs. As articulated by African political elites such as Algeria’s Abdelaziz Bouteflika, Mali’s Alpha Konare, Nigeria’s Olusegun Obasanjo, Senegal’s Abdoulaye Wade, and South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki, the new Pan-Africanism “demanded hastening Africa’s integration into a powerful united entity that could set its own agenda and effectively play a leading role in world affairs” (Mathews, 2018). Second, the Pan-Africanism institutionalized by the AU seems to have laid to rest the victimhood mindset and the culture of blaming others for the ills of Africa that undergird ideas, views, and actions of earlier Pan-Africanists. Instead of blaming every problem in Africa on others, the new generation of Pan-Africanists at least take some responsibility for the challenges facing the African continent. As a consequence, the new generation of Pan-Africanists try to own the discourse and take control of African affairs. The viral-hit speech of Ghana’s president, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, calling for Africa to end its dependency on aid and the West, reflects this approach to Pan-Africanism. As he put it:

We can no longer continue to make policy for ourselves, in our country, in our region, in our continent on the basis of whatever support that the western world or France, or the European Union can give us. It will not work. It has not worked [in the past] and it will not work [now] . . . Our concern should be what do we need to do in this 21st century to move Africa away from being cap in hand and begging for aid.

(Quoted in Asiedu, 2018)

Third, the new Pan-Africanism is human centered compared to the second phase, which focused primarily on decolonization and the creation of the modern African state system. The second phase of Pan-Africanism, as practiced in the institutional context of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), was more interested in legitimizing and institutionalizing statehood in Africa and protecting governing regimes in Africa than in anything else. The new spirit of Pan-Africanism moves beyond this traditional understanding of sovereignty to commit African states and governments to human security–centered rules that seek to demand certain standards of good behavior from African governments (Obasanjo & Mosha, 1992). What are the successes or failures of this new spirit of Pan-Africanism? The next two sections explore this question.


Insights drawn from several areas show the successes of the AU, but for the purposes of brevity and clarity, here I examine seven areas where the AU has made inroads. The successes include the enhancement of African agency on the world stage; the socialization of the majority of the African political class to accept democracy and liberal values as the foundation for international cooperation in Africa; the establishment of progressive and liberal rules; the creation of many useful norms regulating state behavior; and the establishment of decision-making structures that have contributed to the prevention, management, and resolution of conflicts in Africa.

Enhancing African Agency

The AU has enhanced the agency of African states, governments, and political class in the international arena in many ways. First, the AU serves as a forum for African governments to coordinate their policies and decisions on key international issues. It does this by convening summits every winter and summer for representatives of African states to discuss pertinent African as well as global issues and, if possible, take a common position. These summits are often used by individual African states, groups of states, and by African political classes as a collective to mobilize regional and international support for a cause. The cause can be setting the agenda for other international organizations such as the UN to address an issue of concern to Africa or protecting member governments and governing elites of Africa from abuse by powerful states in the international system or fighting perceived injustices against Africa as a whole or exposing and/or addressing great power hypocrisy. The activism of the AU is largely responsible for the discussions within the UN system about funding peace missions and exploring the use of assessed contributions of UN members to finance peace operations authorized by regional organizations and endorsed by the UN. Indeed, the post-2000 discussions about financing peace operations were initiated and largely driven by the AU.

Besides playing a catalytic role in setting the agenda for a new funding formula for peace operations, the AU empowered African governments and leaders to take more assertive positions on international issues. In some instances, the AU enhanced the agency of certain leaders in their fights with powerful actors in the international system. As Bright Mando (2018) showed, the collective position that African governments took at the AU against prosecution of public officials by the International Criminal Court (ICC) and some European courts is largely responsible for the heated global debate between 2006 and 2016 on immunity of African public officials from prosecution by international courts. The AU’s decision to use its institutional framework to enhance the agency of the Sudanese president Omar el Bashir and Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta vis-à-vis the ICC has been key to the successes the two leaders have enjoyed in preventing the ICC from holding them accountable.

Moreover, the AU has been helping the Africa group in the UN system and other international organizations to coordinate their actions, harmonize positions whenever necessary, and take a common position on pertinent global issues. To enable the Africa group to play its role effectively, the AU has established permanent representational offices in the headquarters of the UN in New York; the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Geneva; the EU in Brussels; African, Caribbean, and Pacific (ACP) states in Brussels; the League of Arab States in Cairo; and the Organization of American States in Washington, DC. These AU offices serve as the secretariats, sounding boards, and coordinators for the Africa groups in various international organizations. The coordinating role of the AU is at the heart of African states’ active participation in international organizations in recent years. The voice of Africa has become relatively loud in major international organizations in large part because of the coordinating work of the AU.

The AU also mobilized the three African members of the UN Security Council to speak with one voice and to act as if they are representatives of the African continent rather than their individual states. The AU provides an institutional outlet for African governments to voice their concerns and even critique the powerful in the international system without any major retribution. For instance, African governments used the AU to condemn the alleged use of a derogatory term by the president of the United States, Donald Trump, to describe African states. Fearing retribution, many governments in Africa voiced their concerns through the AU.

In addition, the AU provides a good institutional forum for African states to develop electoral strategies and support candidates vying for positions in international organizations. As the Uganda ambassador to the UN pointed out, in large part because of the work of the AU, Africa remains the only continent that usually presents a single candidate for each elected position in the UN system (Ayebare, 2018). The AU’s role in pushing African states to support a single candidate during elections is an important factor in the relative successes of Africans who have contested for positions in international organizations since 2001. The AU’s endorsement of Ethiopia’s Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus was instrumental in his May 2017 election as director-general of the World Health Organization.

Change of Mindset

A major achievement of the AU has been the gradual but steady socialization of the African political class to accept liberal values and norms as the basis for interstate cooperation. The promotion of liberal values by the AU represents a remarkable shift of approach to Pan-Africanism in Africa (Omotola, 2014).5 Leftist and/or nativist African politicians, who are often anti-West and anti-liberal, have historically monopolized the discourse on Pan-Africanism and dominated continental unity scene. For many years, being Pan-Africanist was almost synonymous with being left, nativist, and against liberal values of democracy and human rights. For all his forward thinking and foresights, Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, the intellectual father of Pan-Africanism in Africa and a founder of the OAU, loathed liberal values such as multiparty democracy and human rights. As Mkandawire (2005, p. 18) pointed out, it was common to hear many of the founders of the OAU declare “that multi-party democracy was alien to African culture” (Mkandawire, 2005, p. 18) The AU helped changed this mindset and narrative. Pan-Africanism as practiced within the institutional context of the AU is pro-liberal. Not only does the AU Commission consider liberal values the foundation of its work, but the majority of the African political class treat liberal values as the only game in town (Tieku, 2017).

The move to embrace liberal values started prior to the drafting of the Constitutive Act of the AU in 2001. It came out of the late 1990s and early 2000s heated debate between the statists/nativists, continental unionists, and liberal internationalists within the African political class (Tieku, 2004).6 The liberal internationalists led by Nigeria’s Olusegun Obasanjo and South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki produced an effective counternarrative against statists/nativists pan-African discourses, which were grounded on anti-liberal values (Mbeki, 2012). The liberal internationalists relative success paved the way for the legalization of some aspects of liberal values in the Constitutive Act of the AU in 2001. The AU Commission took advantage of the space created by the liberal internationalists to develop a more expansive version of liberal values between 2004 and 2006, which the AU Assembly adopted in January 2009 as the African Charter on Democracy, Elections, and Governance (the African Governance Charter). The African Governance Charter contains unprecedentedly elaborate and, in many cases, very innovative way to respond to African governance challenges, including military coups and democratic backsliding (Legler & Tieku, 2010).

Making Peace

The AU has become a major player in the African peace and security landscape. It has changed the attitudes of many governments in Africa from a culture of indifference to a new culture of caring about the African peace and security as a whole (Kioko, 2003). Before the AU, the African political class used two excuses to show indifference to wars outside the jurisdiction of their states. They conveniently hid behind the international principle of territorial integrity of states and avoided intervention in the internal affairs of other states. In addition, they turned a blind eye to conflicts occurring in other African countries, claiming that “peace and security were the preserve of the United Nations, which is mandated to keep peace globally and which possesses more resources than the OAU” (Vogt & Muyangwa, 2000). This excuse was used to prevent the OAU from intervening in internal conflicts of member states. The AU changed all that by introducing Article 4(h), which gives the union the right to intervene along the line of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). Though Article 4(h) is yet to be invoked, it has provided the broader context and cognitive orientations for the AU to intervene in African countries to protect and save lives. The AU approach to peacemaking has fundamentally changed the IOs rules for interventions. Rather than being engaged in the traditional and restrictive IOs peacekeeping operations, the AU engages in peace support operations, which is a more acceptable phrase for peacemaking that involves serious military combats resulting in high casualties. Indeed, it is estimated that between 2001 and 2017, “the number of casualties among African troops in peace support operations exceeded the combined casualties in United Nations peacekeeping missions in the last 70 years” (African Union, 2017, p. 2; United Nations, 2017).

The AU’s daring approach to peacemaking, which most IOs, including the UN, are unwilling or afraid to pursue in Africa, have saved precious civilian lives in African countries, including Burundi, Comoros, Kenya, Sudan, and Somalia. As Peen Rodt (2012, p. 379) showed, the AU peace support operation in Burundi, for instance, “was able to discourage violence and contribute to the creation of a secure environment conducive to peace. The force managed the violent aspect of the conflict and prevented further diffusion, escalation and intensification of violence . . . AU troops also helped facilitate the return of refugees and internally displaced people and delivery of humanitarian aid.” The contribution of the AU to peacemaking is such that the international community has not only footed the larger portion of these interventions, but they often turn a blind eye when the AU flouts international law on intervention. For instance, the UN Charter does not allow a regional organization to intervene in the internal affairs of UN members and only inform the UN after the fact; neither does it permit situations where regional groupings independently deploy troops to UN member states to create peace and then coopt the UN to keep the peace the regional organization has established. The AU has intervened in countries without prior expressed consent, such as in Burundi in 2003 and Somalia in 2011, but the UN endorsed these interventions after the fact (Tieku, 2013).

In addition, the AU has been instrumental in conflict prevention and peaceful settlement of violence. Through its Peace and Security Council, elections observations, the early warning system, the panel of the wise, the pan-African panel of the wise, and the Regional Economic Communities (RECS), the AU has intervened in challenging political situations in Africa, preventing them from exploding into full-blown violence. Since 2001, the AU has directly or through partners intervened in at least 28 different conflicts in Africa (Mathews, 2018). It is so easy to overlook or downplay the AU’s conflict prevention achievements in part because they often occur outside of the prying eyes of the media and also because they do not attract the attention of the noisiest NGOs. Yet they remain the most cost-effective and efficient way to resolve conflicts. The AU’s conflict prevention and mediation works are unknown also because the AU largely works through third parties in preventing conflicts and because the pan-African organization is notoriously bad at documenting its activities and telling its stories to the public. A classic example occurred in 2007 when the AU, through a mediation team led by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, intervened to end the post-election violence in Kenya. Annan’s team was appointed by the then-chairperson of the AU, Ghana’s president John Kufuor, and worked at the pleasure of the AU. In a classic AU move, it ceded the public space on the matter to Annan’s team by letting the three-member mediation team work as if they were answerable to no one. The approach worked relatively well, but the AU name rarely comes up when the resolution of Kenya’s 2007 post-elections violence is discussed. Yet, in all likelihood, more lives would have been lost if the AU had not intervened swiftly through its chairperson and Annan’s mediation. The Kenya example, and indeed the AU’s intervention in African conflicts, points to the decaying pillars of the dreaded international norm of nonintervention in the internal affairs of a state. It is a tribute to the AU that the norm has lost its firm hold on the political class in Africa

Creating Innovative Decision-Making Structures

One of the major achievements of the AU is the creation of low-cost, agile, and innovative international decision-making bodies in a wide range of issues and areas, including peace and security, education, human rights, governance, science and technology, social affairs, just to mention a few. Many of these bodies make international organizations such as the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Association of South-East Asia Nations (ASEAN) look conservative at least on paper. While the innovations that the AU has brought to the international peace and security decision-making arena are well known, there are other unheralded AU institutions that run on shoestring budgets but provide helpful services to African governments and the political class. Many examples, including the often-forgotten Pan-African University, can be cited to illustrate this point but it is worth mentioning the AU Electoral Assistance Unit housed in a cubicle in the Department of Political Affairs.

The Unit, run mostly by contract employees of the AU, provides services that seem to be valued most by its priority stakeholders like African governments, election management bodies in Africa, donors, and even other international elections observer missions. It certainly appears from the frequent invitations for the Unit to observe elections that at least African governments consider the work of the Unit important. The Unit receives approximately 15 invitations annually and African governments seem to make a conscious effort to ensure that the Unit is available to observe their elections. The invitation is sent to the Unit even when the government in question has major disagreement and dispute with the AU. For instance, the AU Commission controversially accepted an invitation to deploy over 200 election monitors to basically observe and certify the coronation of the former Egyptian Army Commander, el-Sissi, in the May 26–28, 2014, presidential elections even though Egypt had been suspended from the AU. Most analysts and even the AU itself knew that the elections were designed to provide a political cover for the coup and yet the AU accepted the invitation from Egypt. It should, however, be pointed out that the AU declined to deploy observers to monitor the controversial third-term presidential election of Pierre Nkurunziza. The questionable nature of the invitation from Egypt notwithstanding, the fact that a suspended member of the Union will invite the AU monitors to observe elections it is organizing shows the importance they attach to the work of the AU Electoral Assistance Unit (EAU). African election management bodies also seem to value the work of the unit. They have worked with the Unit on a wide range of issues, including participating in various AU observer missions and cohosting events such as training workshops, seminars, and other educational programs (African Elections Project, 2015). The Electoral Assistance Unit has revived the annual gathering of the Association of African Election Authorities (AAEA). Between July 22 and 24, 2015, the Electoral Assistance Unit held the 3rd Continental Election Management Bodies Forum in Accra, Ghana. It is also one of the few AU outfits that the African political class has consistently funded. Most of the well-funded international election observer missions often look for AU’s leadership when it comes to the validation or lack thereof of results of elections in African countries.

Rules Making

The AU has been very successful in making international laws that have shaped national legislations and policies. The rules affect a wide range of issues and areas, including international crime and terrorism, control of epidemics, disaster management, environmental management, negotiations relating to trade and external debt, food security, refugees, populations, migration, and displaced persons. Many of them are very intrusive. For instance, the AU Non-Aggression and Common Defence Pact (Common Defence Pact) provides some of the most instructive and detailed regulations on regional defense and security in the world. It criminalizes states’ acquisition of new territory by force, commits AU members to prohibit and prevent genocide, crimes against humanity and other forms of mass murder, and, in addition, it prohibits member states of the AU from entering “into any international or regional commitment which is in contradiction to the present Pact” (AU, 2005).

Others are groundbreaking in the international legal system (Ocran, 2007). Take for instance the AU rules on gender and women. The AU protocol on the rights of women in Africa (2003b) contains many “global firsts” on women’s rights (Keetharuth, 2009). It provided for the first time in an international human rights treaty a woman's right to an abortion the right to self-protection and to be protected against sexually transmitted infections, including HIV/AIDS, as well as the first to provide that every African woman has the right to be informed on their health status, including their HIV and AIDS status. It is also the first international treaty to impose “a legal ban on female genital mutilation” and makes it obligatory for state parties to eliminate it (Ocran, 2007). Moreover, the protocol incorporates both the UN’s legal principles on women and advances these rules in so many ways. Its definition of “violence against women” transcends the definition contained in the UN Declaration on the elimination of violence against women. Unlike the UN Declaration, it expanded the definition of violence against women to include acts causing economic hardship in addition to adding acts committed both in peacetime and during war. It also contains elaborate rules against practices that constitute violence against women. Many of these rules are not sitting on desks gathering dust. Rather, some of them are making practical impacts. For instance, the gender equality rule pushed by the AU has led to the establishment of gender parity at the very top of the management of the AU Commission. They have made the AU one of the most gender sensitive IOs in the world. No IO has more women at senior management positions than the AU. As of February 2018, the AU Commission had 50% women at the top management positions most IOs have less than 40% women at the senior management positions. Women are more represented at the top management of the AU Commission than even the European Commission. While 5 out of 10 AUC Commissioners are women, only 9 out of 19 Commissioners of the EU are women.7

Other rules have influenced a number of African states to change their national legislations and policies. Nigeria, for instance, has made the African Human Rights Charter Chapter 10 of the Federal law of Nigeria (Ekhator, 2015). Many African countries, especially those that developed a national constitution and human rights legislations after the AU was born in 2001, drew inspiration and ideas from the AU human rights system (Hansungule, 2012). Others such as South Africa, Ghana, Cape Verde, and Mauritius, just to mention these four states, have human rights rules consistent with and in many instances domesticate the AU human rights rules.

The extensive rules that the AU has developed on human rights have provided an opportunity to human rights activists to promote and defend human rights and to shame misbehaving governments in Africa. Many advocacy groups have used some of the AU rules to defend groups and individuals, especially the vulnerable population. To cite just one recent example, in 2016, the Minority Rights Group International (MRG) and Mauritanian NGO SOS-Esclaves dragged the Mauritanian government to the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACERWC) for violating its obligations to protect children’s rights under the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (Dahir, 2018; ACERWC, 2018). In a landmark ruling announced on January 26, 2018, the AU committee found that the authorities in Mauritania did not adequately enforce its antislavery laws or took adequate steps to prevent, investigate, prosecute, punish, and prevent the practice of slavery, creating a culture of impunity in the process (ACERWC, 2018). The ruling also noted that Mauritanian authorities failed to act in the best interests of its children, failing to protect them from discrimination, child labor, abuse, trafficking, and other harmful practices (Dahir, 2018). It pointed out that Mauritania’s antislavery law does not provide adequate protection against slavery in practice and asked the Mauritania authorities to take steps to eradicate slavery in Mauritania, including providing special measures for child victims and making the elimination of slavery a priority (Minority Rights Group International and Anti-Slavery International, 2018). The ruling, which was covered widely by both local and international press, is a big blow to the international reputation of Mauritania. Its government has been shamed and forced to do something about the shameful slave practices in Mauritania.

Norms Making

One area where the AU has achieved some success is turning some of its rules into norms in both a positive and negative sense. The AU can be credited for developing wide-ranging and effective normative standards in a relatively short period of its existence. The effects of some of the AU norms, it can be argued, are at times retrogressive. The pan-African solidarity norm, for example, make it hard for anyone to hold African public officials accountable for human rights abuses. Others are certainly progressive, contributing positively to the governance of African states. One such norm is the AU anti-coup norm, which emerged from the unconstitutional changes of government in African regulations adopted first as the Declarations in Harare in 1998. The AU has since built on it to develop very effective norms on unconstitutional changes of government in Africa, defined as the replacement of a democratically elected government through a military coup d’état, or mercenary intervention, or armed rebellion, or by the refusal by an incumbent government to relinquish power to the winning party after free, fair, and regular elections (African Union, 2000, 2010).8 The mechanical application of the norm led to suspension from the AU states such as Guinea-Bissau and Sao Tome and Principe in 2003, Togo in 2005, Mauritania in 2005 and 2007, and Guinea in 2008 after military takeovers (Legler & Tieku, 2010). The AU anti-coup norm is so strong that the AU became the only international organization to have taken a firm stand against the 2013 coup in Egypt. The AU took the principled stand against the coup though Egypt is one of the AU’s major funders and even when most Western states such as the U.S refused to do so. . . . The success of the anti-coup has also spillover into the development of other liberal regulations including the African governance charter, which made elections the only legitimate means of acquiring state power in Africa.9 Keen observers of African politics credit these regulations for the reduction by almost half of coup making on the African continent since the AU emerged on the scene (Souaré, 2014). Recent studies also show that the norm has been diffusing in other regional organizations including the International Organization of the Francophonie (OIF) (Souaré, 2018).

Regulating African States’ Behavior

Though the AU has not achieved resounding successes in its attempt to regulate the behavior of members, it has made significant inroads in this area by nudging African governments to behave appropriately. The AU Commission, for instance, took advantage of its mandate to “coordinate and monitor the implementations of the decisions of other organs of the AU,” and the power to “assist member states in implementing AU programs and policies” to name and shame governments that have not implemented policies and decisions of the AU.10 For instance, as part of its mandate to “ensure the mainstreaming of gender in all programs and activities of the Union,” the office of the Chairperson has been reporting annually and publicly about the regulatory and institutional mechanisms developed by AU member states to promote gender equity.11 These annual reports submitted to the AU summits carry significant naming and shaming impacts. Though correlation is not causation, it is not just a sheer coincidence that there has been progressive development of many institutional frameworks in Africa, including those created in the presidencies of African governments to promote gender issues since the AUC emerged on the political scene in 2003. The changes in African states may have something to do with the AUC’s naming and shaming of governments during summits. Similarly, the AU has used these powers to impose the AU’s code of conduct and rules of engagement on African security personnel on AU peace support missions. The rules have the encouraged majority of African security forces on AU missions to conduct themselves in professional ways. For instance, the AUC pushed troops contributing countries to its peace missions to enforce the Union’s zero tolerance on sexual abuse. Unlike in the past where IOs basically ignored accusations of sexual assaults by their peacekeepers, the AU appointed an independent team of investigators to examine Human Rights Watch’s allegations of 21 cases of sexual exploitation and abuse by the Ugandan and Burundian contingents as well as some civilian personnel to the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM) (AU, 2014; Bader & Muscati, 2014). Though the report was inconclusive in large part because the leadership of the military in the affected countries did not fully cooperate, it was interesting that those who were accused of sexual misconduct were quietly withdrawn from the mission and/or banned from participating in future missions, and in at least one case the accused person was widely presumed to have been jailed (African Union, 2015a). The allegations would have been an additional footnote to the massive literature that exists on the culture of impunity that peacekeepers accused of sexual exploitation have enjoyed over the years had it not been for the AU Commission’s nudging.


Yet, the AU has been less successful in addressing many of the expressed needs and concerns of non-elites in Africa who constitute the bulk of the population of Africa and who need the AU the most. It has failed to: implement many of the decisions that would have had the greatest impact on ordinary Africans; give voice to the majority of the people in Africa, especially those under the age of 35 years old; hold some of the bad African leaders accountable for abuse of power; improve intra-African trade that would have benefited ordinary Africans; and predictably it has increased Africa’s financial dependence on external donors.

Failure to Implement Many of Its Decisions

The AU has a poor track record when it comes to the implementation of decisions at the member-state level and in the various African communities. It is estimated that only 15% of overall decisions made by the AU since 2001 have been implemented in full at the state level (Assogbavi, 2018). To a large extent the AU should not take the lions share of the blame for this unenviable track record. Rather, it is AU members who often decide not to integrate the most progressive ideas into national legislations or empower domestic actors to implement AU decisions. It is also member states who often fail to ratify decisions signed at AU summits or give effect to them. However, the fact that the AU cannot persuade or socialize its members to implement its decisions raises doubt about the capacity of the organization and the importance African governments attach to its work. The African continent would have been transformed if African states had implemented even 60% of AU decisions. There would have been transformational change, for instance, in the agriculture sector, which gives livelihood to almost 70% of Africans, if African governments had followed the Comprehensive African Agriculture Development Program (CAADP) blueprint and devoted 10% of their national budgets to agriculture (AU, 2003a). Few Africans would have risked their lives on the Mediterranean Sea and the Libyan disert trying to seek greener pastures in Europe if AU decisions on youth, including those in the African Youth Charter, had been implemented in full. The AU leadership was concerned about the low rate of implementation of AU decisions to the extent that a consensus emerged prior to the election of Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as chairperson of the AU Commission in 2012 that she will ensure that previous AU decisions are implemented before new ones are made.12 That decision, ironically, was not implemented.

Failure to Create an AU of People

A major reason for transforming the OAU to the AU was to open up the continental decision-making process to many Africans (Makinda & Okumu, 2007). The AU was sold to the world as an ordinary people-centered international institution, unlike the OAU, which was largely a club of dictators and big men (Reynolds, 2002). As a direct result, it was given the Economic, Social and Cultural Council (ECOSOCC), the civil society policy organ of the AU, and the Directorate of Citizens and Diaspora (CIDO), a specialized unit designed to bring grass-roots organizations and ordinary citizens into the AU system. While ECOSOCC is mandated to serve as a policy development interface between the AU and civil society, the CIDO’s role is to bring into the AU non-elite Africans and Africans in the diaspora. However, the two bodies have failed to position the AU in such a way that its programs, decisions, and policies are influenced or shaped by non-elite Africans. The space for civil society and ordinary Africans to participate in AU decision making has shrunk considerably, especially since 2014. In 2014, the AU decided to add NGOs to external actors it will exclude from its summit and in 2018, the little relations AU had with youth groups got worse when the AU rejected elections of the new Executive Committee of the Pan African Youth Union (PYU) (AU, 2018a).

The AU remains largely an elitist club, open primarily to the political class, urban and Western-educated elite who have preferential access to power, money, and information. Its activities are mostly held in highly fortified buildings, five-star hotels, and are often exclusionary. Most AU meetings are classified as high level precisely because they are designed to exclude the non-powerful and the non-elite from participating in them. Even the occasional activities and events that are designed for commoners are still elitist and only targeted at people within the upper class of African civil societies. Instead of inviting community members, who are capable of promoting AU work at the local level, the AU has the habit of inviting only current and former African leaders, very senior diplomats, and carefully selected academics, leadership of well-funded civil society organizations, and famous journalists and bloggers. Middle-level bureaucrats who actually write national policies or those who can actually promote these ideas at the local level or those who will provide contrarian views are usually not invited to AU meetings. Doors of most AU events are often completely shut to members of the African civil service who are key to translating AU decisions into policy instruments. Even the language and discourse at these AU events are super exclusionary. Most AU events are organized in English and French and on rare occasions in Arabic and Kiswahili. Less than 20% of Africans access information on a regular basis in these languages. The AU has made little effort to translate or communicate its ideas in the commonly spoken languages in individual African states. Statistically speaking, it is unlikely that the AU reaches anywhere near 20% of the population in Africa. The majority of those reached by the AU are the privileged few who are well connected and have access to the internet including social media platforms. AU preference for old and experienced hands (AU meetings are often reserved for people in their 40s and upwards) has further distanced the pan-African organization from Africans, many of whom are under 35 years of age and do not have the fancy titles AU gatekeepers need as a requirement for an invitation to AU-sponsored events. It will be surprising if the AU has had meaningful impacts on more than 30% of African population since 2001. Its work has limited direct bearing on the lives of the majority of people in Africa, including students and non-Western-educated Africans.

Failure to Hold Leaders Accountable

The AU has failed to use the excellent diplomatic, legal, and normative tools at its disposal to change the actual behavior of the misbehaving political elite(s). It has been unable to prevent leaders from clinging on to power. The AU watched helplessly as President Joseph Kabila of DRC stubbornly refused to step down after his final term in office expired in December 2016. Elections to choose his successor were scheduled (in December 2018) two years after his term in office had expired. The AU accorded him all privileges it gives to constitutionally elected leaders during the period that President Kabila overstayed in office. The AU was also a mere spectator when President Yoweri Museveni used questionable processes to remove from the Uganda constitution the term limit in 2015 and the age limit in 2017, paving the way for him to extend his 32-year-old hold on power. The AU has been unable to push for genuine opening of political spaces in increasingly few but still illiberal regimes headed by strongmen like Idriss Déby of Chad, Paul Biya of Cameroon, Denis Sassou Nguesso of Congo Brazaville, and Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea. Some of these questionable leaders have even become AU kingmakers and its public face. Idriss Déby chaired the AU in 2017, managing in the process to get his then foreign minister elected as the chairperson of the AU Commission. Another strongman, Paul Kagame, who has also ruled Rwanda with an iron fist, chaired the AU in 2018, led its reform processes, and became the public face of the AU throughout 2018. The AU has been a bystander as popular agitation for regime change and democratic reforms in countries such as Togo, and Cameroon rages on and as leaders such as Paul Biya of Cameron and Faure Gnassingbé Eyadéma of Togo use security forces to quell popular campaigns for political reforms. In short, the AU has been unable to use all the diplomatic and legal tools to address the most vexing governance problems in Africa.

Failure to Lead by Example

The AU is to some extent a mirror image of its members. It is a club of African states, and some of the bad governance practices in individual African states manifest themselves in the AU. Citizens of both poorly governed and well-managed African states have equal opportunity to participate in the AU processes and to hold positions in the organization. Public officials from the badly managed African states have been successful in getting into top management positions within the AU Commission, bringing with them some of the bad governance and decision-making practices in their states. Many members of the senior administration team, including the current chairperson of the AU Commission, prominent commissioners, and directors of departments, come from, and in many instances were public officials of, countries with serious democratic deficits. Many of these officials are not used to following due process and participatory decision-making processes or having their views challenged by subordinates. Rather, they are used to giving orders and commanding obedience from subordinates. Some have introduced and even normalized in AU the bad governance practices they learned at home.

This management style imported into the AU system has not gone down well with AU bureaucrats from countries where deliberative culture and respect for due process are highly developed. The clash of cultures between bureaucrats from open and democratic African countries and their counterparts from authoritarian countries is often framed within the context of the Anglophones’ and Francophones’ faultiness in the AU Commission. It is common to hear Anglophones complain that Francophones have no respect for due process and have brought their authoritarian and failed-state mentality to the AU Commission, while the Francophones often retort that their Anglophone counterparts do not have a good grasp of the dynamics of bureaucratic politics or have no respect for authority. The Anglophone–Francophone tribal mentality and clientelist attitudes and networks in the AU Commission are making it extremely difficult for the AU to develop institutional coherence and be effective.

Failure to Improve Intra-Regional Trade

Promoting intra-Africa trade was one of the major reasons for transforming the OAU to the AU. The AU was supposed to use the treaty of the African Economic Community to promote intra-Africa trade and to speed up the process of creating an Africa free trade zone (AU, 2001). In spite of the fact that the AU inherited a fully negotiated treaty for a continental African economic community, came with a lofty free trade agenda, and could call upon the UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) for technical support and the African Development Bank (ADB) for financial assistance, the AU has had a negligible impact on intra-Africa trade. According to ADB’s African Economic Outlook 2017, intra-Africa trade, which the report argued has “the greatest potential for building sustainable economic development and integration” in Africa, grew from just 10% in 2000 to about 16% in 2014 (African Development Bank, 2017). Even the optimistic report of the ADB showed that trade in manufacturing, the key to any meaningful trade between African countries, declined from 18% to 15% during the period. Even more to the point, any growth in intra-Africa trade since the AU was established occurred in spite of and not because of the AU.

Failure to Wean AU Off External Financial Dependence

The AU has become financially dependent on external donors in an unhealthy way. Since its creation, the bulk of the AU program’s budget has been funded by donors such as China, the European Union, the UN, and the United States (Nabourema, 2018). At the 27th AU summit, held in Kigali in July 2017, the AU Assembly adopted a series of measures, including a levy of 0.2% on eligible imports, to give the AU financial autonomy. It is estimated that the levy proposed by the former finance minister of Rwanda and former ADB chief Donald Kaberuka will generate approximately US$1.2 billion annually. It is projected that the new funding formulae will enable the AU to fund 100% of its operational budget, 75% of its program budget, and 25% of the peacekeeping budget. Although around 24 of 54 countries are estimated to be implementing the Kigali funding decision as of December 2018, the AU is still struggling to wean itself of external financial dependence. Of the total budget of US$681.5 million (operating budget of US$161.4 millions programs budget of US$252.8 million, and US$273.3 million for peace support operations) approved for the 2019 fiscal year, external partners are expected to contribute approximately 54% (i.e., $368.01 million) while the AU member states will provide 46% (i.e., $313.49 million) to the overall budget (AU, 2018b). Most keen observers of African politics and the AU still expect the union to continue its reliance on external funders in the foreseeable future. The AU dependence on external generosity is both a continental embarrassment and source of concern for those who care deeply about continental integration.


This article examined successes and failures of the AU since it was created in 2001. It showed that the AU is a tripartite organization consisting of governmental bodies, international bureaucracy, and outisiders. The governmental bodies are supposed to play a domineering role in the AU system; however, the AU bureaucracy and actors together with outisiders have carved out a significantly independent space for themselves. Any analysis of the AU that ignores the tremendous influence of these actors will provide an incomplete and partial account of the AU.

By placing the AU within the broader intellectual history and context of continental integration in Africa, it was shown that the AU is a manifestation of a new form of Pan-Africanism, which stands for a shift in focus of attention away from concerns about race and state building. Rather, the new spirit of Pan-Africanism pays closer attention to economic development issues, cosmopolitan ideas, regional African problems, and quotidian concerns of Africans. These concerns range from bad governance, election-related violence, civil wars, diseases, hunger, trade, migration, and climate change to solving collective action problems at the global level. These concerns are supposed to make the AU focus on basic needs issues, such as security for the individual, community, and the family, rather than the traditional concerns of Pan-Africanism, which centered on raising black consciousness, protecting the state system, and helping governing regimes in Africa to stay in power. The AU is in theory a developmentally oriented organization, unlike its predecessor, whose attention was occupied almost exclusively by decolonization and state-building processes.

The human-centered approach the AU was supposed to bring to bear on Pan-Africanism meant that it had to develop different rules, norms, decision-making structures, and agendas from those of the previous continental institution. The AU was therefore given an impressive and innovative array of institutions, programs, and activities and mandated to promote continental political unity, security cooperation, and economic integration, as well as to enhance African agency on the world stage.

After almost 18 years of existence, the AU, just like a teenager entering into adulthood, has made progress in certain areas and had more than a fair share of failures. On one hand, it has enhanced the agency of African government in the international system, helped African leaders to accept liberal values as a foundation for international cooperation, and created an impressive array of rules, norms, and decision-making structures. In fact, it has outperformed most international organizations when it comes to creating innovative norms, rules, conventions, protocols, and declarations on peace, security, economic development, agriculture, and social issues. But many of its progressive and innovative ideas have yet to be implemented in full. Over 80% of AU decisions have yet to be integrated into national legislations, agendas, and policies.

The AU has struggled to change the behavior and attitudes of the remaining strongmen and power-hungry leaders on the continent. Although there has been an upward movement in terms of opening the political space in different parts of Africa, due in part to rules, norms, and structures created by the AU, there has also been a deterioration of governance practices across the African continent due also to the effects of the AU’s silences on misrule and abuse of power. The AU has been vocal on coups and coup makers but happy to acquiesce when an elected regime backslides or when the political class governs unjustly. One area the AU can certainly improve on as it becomes an adult is to build on the successes it has had in regulating acquisition of power peacefully to develop rules and norms that will encourage the political class to govern better. Most African countries practice some form of electoral democracy; the major challenge going forward is how to prevent them from becoming electoral dictatorships or backsliding. The AU will be playing a useful role in the future if it can help prevent electoral dictatorship in Africa.

Another useful role the AU can play in the future will be to build on the relative successes it has had in responding to the most severe form of violence, that is, to prevent, resolve, and manage everyday forms of violence or the more systematic forms of violence that are too common in different parts of Africa. The challenge for the AU is whether it can transition from the “firefighting” mindset it has developed since 2001 in order to become a good “fire prevention” institution.

As an adult, the AU should not expect to be “housed” like it was when the Chinese and Germans handed it, on a silver platter, multipurpose buildings. Neither should it expect to be “clothed” as it was when the EU and UN paid for AU interventions, nor should it expect to be “spoon-fed” by the general donor community. The challenge is whether the AU leadership can unwind the donor-dependent and cup-in-hand attitudes that have been normalized in the AU system. Finally, the AU will be a very useful organization in the future if it can be serviceable to ordinary Africans in a way similar to that which cared for African elites and addressed the needs of the political class. The AU can become a cherished African institution when it prioritizes the needs, wants, and lives of ordinary Africans. The AU successes and failures in its adult life will be measured not by the kind of service it provided to African elites, but by how well it took care of the needs of the nonpolitical class. At present, AU successes have been good for African elites, whereas its failures have been detrimental to the aspirations of ordinary Africans.


This article was written while I was UG-Carnegie Diaspora Fellow in the Legon Centre for International Affairs and Diplomacy at the University of Ghana. I thank Carnegie Corporation and the University of Ghana for supporting my fellowship and LECIAD for hosting me. I am grateful to Maame Adwoa Nyame Sam of University of Ghana for research assistance. The views expressed here and any errors in the article are solely mine.



  • 1. For the few materials that connect the AU to larger academic conversations, see Williams (2009) who uses IR tools to evaluate the AU Peace and Security Council, Jen (2012) who draws on international law to examine AU’s approach to peacebuilding, and Tieku (2017) who conceptualizes the nature of the AU and assesses its performance from an international organization perspective.

  • 2. Take, for instance, the date the AU came into existence. The actual date is May 26, 2001, which is exactly 30 days after the deposit of the instrument of ratification of the Constitutive Act of the AU by two-thirds of the 54 African governments that constituted the Organization of African Unity (OAU), the predecessor to the AU. However, the majority of the writings on the AU give July 2002 as the date of birth of the AU. The discrepancy occurred because the first AU summit and its inauguration, which were widely covered by the media, unlike the actual date of birth, occurred on July 2002. It takes a bit of time, reflection, and research (things that are scarce in the speed-driven think tank and policy world) to notice this subtle but important distinction between the date the AU was legally born and the date it was inaugurated.

  • 3. The new African Union Commission (AUC) structure approved by African leaders during the Extraordinary AU summit on AU institutional reforms held in November 2018 reduced the number of AUC departments to eight. Under the new structure, the department of peace and security is supposed to merge with the department of political affairs. The new departments are: Political Affairs, Peace and Security; Health, Humanitarian Affairs and Social Development; Economic Development, Trade and Industry; Mining, Education, Science, Technology and Innovation; Agriculture, Rural Development, Blue Economy and Sustainable Development; and Department of Infrastructure and Energy.

  • 4. The first wave occurred between the 1900s and 1940s; the second can be dated roughly to the period between the 1950s and 1960s; and the third wave is around the 1990s and 2000s. The first wave was primarily intellectual, when educated African elites met in five pan-African congresses to try to create consciousness among people of African descent around challenges facing Africans living in North America. The second wave centered on the mobilization of people of African descent to decolonize the continent and to create the modern African state system. The third wave focused on economic development issues. In other words, the first movement prioritized social and intellectual issues; the second movement focused on political issues; and the third movement was more economic in orientation.

  • 5. The African version of Pan-Africanism, as Asante (2018) showed, is different from the Euro-American Pan-Africanisim that sought to bring all black people together to form a United States of Africa. The African Pan-Africanism, however, sought to unite all those born on the African continent, irrespective of race.

  • 6. The statists were more interested in defending the colonial borders that were bequeathed to Africans, and saw identity issues as matters that should be left for each African state to determine. The continental unionists were interested in building a united Africa based on ancient African cultures. The liberal internationalists were more interested in creating subregional identity and economic integration.

  • 7. The EU data are available on the European Commission website.

  • 8. They include replacement of a democratically elected government through a military coup d’état, mercenary intervention, or armed rebellion, or by the refusal by an incumbent government to relinquish power to the winning party after free, fair, and regular elections.

  • 9. Besides elections, the common means of acquiring power in Africa has been military coups, armed rebellions, and popular protests.

  • 10. See Article 2c, h, and g of the Statutes of the African Union Commission (AU, 2002b).

  • 11. See Article 2cc of the Statutes of African Union Commission (AU, 2002b).

  • 12. Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma—Profile (2018) African Union; Namibia, supported by many countries, first mooted the idea during the 17th Assembly session in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, in July 2011. See African Union (2011).